Ben Bradshaw

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My Verdict on this Government's Cycling Plan

Below is my speech in yesterday’s House of Commons debate on cycling.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I am honoured and humbled to follow the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young). The bicycle has been my main form of transport for at least the past 20 years, as it has his. It has been the only form of transport I have owned for that period. Having cycled as a child, it was logical for me to use the bike as my main form of transport, given the growing congestion in our towns and cities. The revelatory experience for me—the eureka moment—came in the mid-90s, when I was sent by “The World This Weekend” to my old primary school in Norfolk. I cannot remember what the news piece was about—whether it was about stranger danger, the safety of roads or even growing obesity—but I arrived at my old primary school to find that the bike sheds had gone. That was a shocking experience for me. Not only had the sheds gone, but in place of children coming and going by biking or walking at the beginning and end of the school day, there was traffic congestion, belching fumes, noise and chaos outside the school gates. From that moment on, I have not felt as passionate about many issues, across all public policy, as I do about this one.

Things do not have to be like they were at that school. I am glad to say that in Exeter we have bike sheds again at our primary and secondary schools. Thanks to the investment we received as part of the previous Labour Government’s cycling demonstration town scheme, we have had a massive increase in the number of children cycling and walking to school—one of the biggest increases anywhere in the country—and a huge increase of 40% in cycling levels overall. I ask those who still do not believe that we can replicate Danish and Dutch cycling levels because ours is a hilly country to come to Exeter, one of the hilliest cities in the country. We have done it. We know how it can be done, although we have a lot more to do.

The problem is that under successive Governments—I do not want this to be a party political debate—the approach taken to cycling has been a piecemeal hotch-potch; we have had a bit of funding here, a bit of targeted funding there and a grant that has to be applied for. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, progress has been bedevilled by the fact that there has not been sustained, real investment and sustained political leadership from the top.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I hesitate to interrupt my right hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech. I recently visited a Bikeability scheme at a local primary school in Bristol, where children are being trained and encouraged to feel safe on the roads. Does he share my concern that we are not putting enough money into Bikeability schemes and that doing so would be a huge step towards encouraging more people to cycle?

Mr Bradshaw: Yes, I do share that concern. I agree with my hon. Friend, who has put her finger on another important element—education, getting people cycling early and giving people the confidence to cycle. I am fortunate that in my constituency we still have a local authority that is committed to Bikeability, but, again, the service around the country is patchy because there is no sustained funding. Heaven knows, we all know what funding pressures local government is under at the moment.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend’s city has very good cycling facilities and routes, and needs to be commended for that. Does he accept that there is a slight problem, in that primary school children can be excited about cycling and encouraged to enjoy it—some primary schools do good work on that—but in secondary schools cycling becomes impossible because of bad facilities or longer journeys, or simply because it is “uncool”? We lose a lot of cyclists in the crucial teenage years and they do not come back, so somehow or other we have to do a lot more to get young teenagers and teenagers in general to keep on cycling.

Mr Bradshaw: I am sure my hon. Friend is right in what he says, although it has not been my experience in Exeter. Helped by the fantastic success of our professional cycling teams in the Olympics, cycling is now very cool and there has been a big upsurge in cycling among teenagers in my constituency. However, that is mainly because there are safe routes to the schools and facilities for people to lock their bikes and store their stuff when they get there. I am sorry to say that that is not common across the country.

It was in that context, after all the years of hard work by people such as the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire, that the all-party group, supported by The Times, decided to carry out its investigation and report in 2013. We spent days listening to evidence from experts across the field on how to get to the sort of cycling levels enjoyed in most of our neighbouring and similar continental countries. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, this is not rocket science; it comes down to sustainable commitments for funding and sustainable, persistent cross-departmental Government leadership.

What do we get today? A year late, we get a report that has been rushed out in time for this debate. I wanted to try to be kind about the report, which I had time to read before coming into the Chamber, but I cannot help agreeing with CTC, which has described it as “not a delivery plan” but a “derisory plan”. Once again, it is a hotch-potch of aspiration, which puts a lot of the responsibility on hard-pressed local authorities, on local enterprise partnerships—we have already heard that the record of LEPs is feeble at best, and they are also under a lot of pressure—and on business. That is deeply depressing and dispiriting, following all the debates we have had in this House, and the growing support among Members from all parts of this House and among the public for meaningful action to be taken on cycling. Seeing the report was one of the most depressing moments I have had in this House during this Parliament.

Surely we do not need to remind the Government of cycling’s benefits for health, the environment, and tackling congestion and pollution. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) reminded us about the health benefits alone. If we met the targets that our report set for 2025 of 10% of journeys by bike, up from a derisory 2% in England at the moment, we would save £8 billion in health expenditure. If we reached continental levels of 25% of journeys made by cycling by 2050, which was our other target, we would save £25 billion for the health service.

Those are just the health benefits; they do not even take into account the additional benefits of tackling congestion and emissions. I do not understand what is wrong with the economists in the Department for Transport and the Treasury who do not recognise the logic of that. The Secretary of State, who I am pleased to see in his place, is a reasonable man. He was extolling the fantastic rail renaissance that we enjoyed in England in recent years. We could be having exactly the same renaissance in cycling if only there were the political will and a tiny bit of investment. All it would need is a fraction of the Department’s budget that is going on roads or on HS2 to be earmarked for cycling, and we could achieve that £10 per head per year figure, which would begin to deliver the cycling revolution we all want.

Let me be perfectly frank: whatever one thinks of this Government report, the timing of its publication—in the last few months before a general election—probably means that the political parties’ manifestos for next May and who then forms the Government will matter much more. I want to make it clear, including to my own Front-Bench team, that there are a lot of cyclists out there and we should not underestimate the power of the cycling vote. Many towns and cities, from Brighton and Hove to Norwich, Cambridge, Oxford, my own city of Exeter and Bristol, will have hard-fought contests in marginal seats at the next election.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): The right hon. Gentleman is very kind to give way, especially as he has just mentioned Brighton and Hove. It gives me the opportunity to say that in Brighton and Hove we have the fastest growing cycle-to-work scheme outside London. Does he agree that what we need in today’s plan is far more focus on cycle-friendly design standards or guidance? We should be sharing such standards, and yet there is nothing in the plan to do or promote that. Therefore, current guidelines are very jumbled up, inconsistent and contradictory.

Mr Bradshaw: Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. There is a good plan on the shelf in Wales, which the Department for Transport could simply use. There are far too many different plans, which need to be brought together in one single plan.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): May I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to page 8 of the plan in which it talks about sharing best practice? It says that we will “create a single point of information about the best practice for creating and designing cycle-friendly streets.” That is in the plan and we are determined to ensure that best practice is shared among local authorities, which have ownership of the roads.

Mr Bradshaw: That was not the view of the cycling organisations this morning in their initial response to the plan.

Let me finish with this message to my Front Benchers and political parties across the spectrum. There are millions of cyclists out there, and they are waiting for real and meaningful action on cycling to deliver safe cities and a healthy environment, tackle obesity, increase happiness and boost the economy. It is a no-brainer for very little money. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) will take that message back to the shadow Secretary of State, who I know is a committed cyclist, and to his shadow Treasury colleagues.

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